WITH the stock market hitting another rocky patch, this might be a good time to try to add stock options to your benefits package, an international employee-benefits consultant says - even if it means sacrificing some cash compensation. 'It is probably a good time to be negotiating options,' said Damien O'Brien, Egon Zehnder International's managing partner for greater China. 'There is a lot of upside if you believe the market is going to come back. So it's a good time to be seeking equity in local corporates if you take a three-year time frame or longer.' Employees who join a company at the top of a bull market risk suffering a loss on their stock options. But that is unlikely to happen to people changing jobs now. With the market bumping along nearly 50 per cent below last year's peak, options issued now stand a good chance of rising in value, eventually. And recent rounds of lay-offs mean many people are in the process of negotiating new salary packages. Mr O'Brien says executives let go in the past several months are finding work, but they are having to trade down on some aspects of their benefits packages. Usually, this means accepting value-based rewards, such as stock options, and cash compensation instead of the allowance-laden packages that used to be the norm, at least for expatriates. He said many find they prefer the new cash-based arrangements, which allow them to save, to the extravagant lifestyle dictated by their previous packages. 'They may not be living in a $150,000 home any more; they may be living in an $80,000 apartment. But that wasn't a big deal for them, anyway. That was just part of the package they had. They had no choice,' he said. Hong Kong Chinese rarely have received fancy perks, the rationale for which was to lure foreign executives into accepting a 'hardship' posting in Hong Kong. With the shift to value and cash-based rewards, the playing field has been levelled for local executives. More and more, everybody is getting cash, just straight cash. And Hong Kong Chinese are getting as much of that, if not more, than anyone. With their language skills and cultural affinity, locals often command a premium on their salary, Mr O'Brien said. Now, however, 'it's probably time to trade off cash compensation for equity compensation', he said. 'We have people prepared to do that - trade down on cash, on salary, to get more equity.' But Hong Kong Chinese executives who work for local companies, as opposed to multinational corporations, might find this a tricky matter to negotiate. Asian companies - in contrast with their counterparts in the United States, Western Europe and Australia - have been reluctant to offer employee stock-option plans (Esops). Mr O'Brien said Chinese-run companies tended to 'guard their equity jealously'. 'They are typically family-controlled . . . [and] Chinese families don't give away equity,' he said. The same seems to hold true for blue chips. Of the 33 companies in the Hang Seng Index, for example, only 13 offer Esops or similar long-term incentive plans. This compares with 99 of the 100 companies in London's FTSE 100 index. Multinationals have long recognised the value of offering employees a piece of the action. Not only does it give them a strong incentive to work hard to boost their employer's profits - which should have a positive impact on the share price - but also stock options issued in staggered tranches quickly turn into 'golden handcuffs' that keep employees from quitting (and leaving unexpired options on the table). Mr O'Brien said SAR companies would have to change their practices if they were to succeed in wooing Hong Kong Chinese executives, who are in great demand by both local companies and multinationals. 'These companies are going to end up employing these people, and these people are going to be like Trojan horses,' he said. 'They are going to come into these companies - or they're going to go into their family companies - and they're going to say, 'Guys, this is not the future'.'